Good news on absence rates

More than a quarter of pupils in primary and secondary schools didn’t take any time off from school during the autumn term of 2018 according to recent DfE figures https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/pupil-absence-in-schools-in-england-autumn-term-2018

The most common reasons for absence was reported as illness, followed by attendance at medical, dental or presumably opticians appointments (although this last one isn’t specified). Could more be done to look at how these appointments are organised, particularly for certain key year groups? Should receptionists be required to ask the Year Group of a child when booking an appointment and recognise the importance of certain times in a young person’s education and, if possible, take this into account?

Overall absence rates for 2018 were lower than in either of the previous two years, at 71.6% of enrolments, compared with 74.3% in 2016. Of course, last winter was relatively mild and not especially wet across most of England, and the weather may play a part in determining the level of these figures. It must be easier to go to school when the sun is out than on a cold foggy morning if you feel a bit down and are faced with the prospect of wait at the bus stop in the drizzle.

It might be interesting to see if there is any correlation with the weather and days of the week and absence rates?

The dates of specific religious festivals that move around the calendar obviously have an effect upon attendance rates, as these figures show. In 2016, such absences counted for a notable amount of the authorised absences, whereas in 2018 the figure was negligible.

Holidays in term time remain contentious, with the percentage of unauthorised such holiday several times higher than the agreed holidays figure. Such unauthorised holidays are more common in the primary sector, when family structures and children’s ages presumably make the desire for a family holiday greater than during the period when pressure on studying for exams is greater.

However, it would be interesting to see a figure for voluntary attendance on Saturdays to counter balance this negative view of time lost by pupils. I am increasingly overwhelmed by the number of pupils and teachers that take time to attend when they don’t have to do so. This despite the obvious concerns over teacher workload. Again, this voluntary service needs more notice than it receives outside of the profession.

Next time someone talks of the long holidays that teachers have, ask them when they last went into work on a Saturday or did a voluntary extra shift to help their customers?

There is still a worrying percentage of pupils being excluded with no alternative provision being made, even in the autumn term. Regional School Commissioners need to ask academies how much they are contributing to this figure.

Finally, after two years when the number was on the increase, there was a welcome fall in the number of pupils classified as persistent absentees. At 10.9% of enrolments it still marks a waste of talent and is helping to store up problems for the future. But, at least the figure is lower than in both 2016 and 2017.

 

 

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As predicted: more pupils than last year

Over 2.3 million pupils are in being taught in academies or one type of another (72.3% of all secondary school pupils) along with over 1.4 million in primary schools (29.7% of all primary school pupils). These numbers were released yesterday by the DfE as part of their annual assessment of schools ad their pupils. This information has appeared somewhat earlier than expect; it was scheduled to appear in June. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/719226/Schools_Pupils_and_their_Characteristics_2018_Main_Text.pdf

The trend towards declining pupil numbers  at the lower end of the primary age range, and growing numbers at Year 7 in the secondary sector, is now clear to see from these figures and will come as no surprise to those that follow the data about schools and their pupils.

Overall, however, the number of pupils in state funded primary schools rose – as it has since 2009 – although at a slower rate than in recent years. There are 26,600 more pupils than in 2017, and 101,100 more since the 2016 census. The number of pupils in state funded secondary schools rose for the fourth year in a row by around 35,000, and in 2018 had a greater increase in population than primary schools.

There was some consolidation in the primary sector resulting in a net decrease of 20 state-funded primary schools, whereas in the secondary sector there was a net increase of 28 state-funded schools.

All-age schools once looked on askance, not least by the 1944 Education Act that outlawed them by requiring a break at eleven, are still on the increase, albeit perhaps at a slower rate than previously. In January 2017 there were 150 such schools, but this figure has increased to 163 state-funded schools in January 2018. Some of these are ‘free schools’, the most misnamed designation ever invented for a type of school.

As the economy has continued to create more jobs, especially for women, the continued fall in the number of registered pupils for free school meals is not a complete surprise. However, there is still anxiety that the universal free school meals policy for infants is affecting registration for free school meals, causing some schools to lose funding through the Pupil Premium. The issue of funding for deprivation and how it is used by schools is now overdue for a review as all schools will shortly feel the full effect of FSM+6 on their budgets. Perhaps the Social Mobility Commission might like to consider this issue.

A third of all pupils in the primary sector now come from what is classified as an ethnic background, although that includes nearly eight per cent from White non-British backgrounds. Just over one in ten pupils are from Asian background, and one in twenty from ‘Black’ backgrounds.  Slightly more than one in twenty are described as, of ‘mixed’ backgrounds, and this category is likely to increase over the coming years.

Fewer than one in twenty infants were in over-size classes of more than 30, with the majority being in classes of 31. As intakes have reduced in size, so has the issue of over-size classes for infants. Over the next few years, large classes are more likely to be a growing problem for secondary schools unless funding, especially for 16-18 improves.

 

Install sprinkler systems

This blog discussed the issue of installing sprinkler system in new schools in a post that was dated 28th August 2016. At that time, the government was considering relaxing the rules about the installation of such systems.

There was a BBC new report over the weekend https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-47923843 citing a study by the Fire Brigades Union using data obtained following a question from Labour MP and former teacher Stephanie Peacock. She found that 105 of the 673 schools built and open by February were fitted with sprinklers. Not surprisingly, the fact that only 15% of new build schools were fitted with sprinkler system has rightly raised concerns.

Some of these schools are likely to be single storey primary schools with good means of evacuation in the event of a fire. However, some will be secondary schools with more than one storey and it is hoped that all of these will have had sprinkler system installed. However, there is no requirement for private schools to install sprinkler systems even when higher risk activities, such as laboratories are located on upper floors.

There are two reasons for installing sprinkler systems, the risk to life and limb and the risk to property.  According to official figures, there were no fatalities from school fires in the eight years up to 2017/18, but there were 244 casualties. The lack of fatalities wouldn’t be used in any other circumstances for scaling back on safety measures, and it shouldn’t be when constructing new school buildings.

However, the risk to property is an equally important reason for installing sprinkler systems in schools of all types. Arson rarely happens when schools are occupied, and often takes place at night. Water damage, although distressing, can be much less costly and disruptive than a building burning down. Even if academies are externally insured for their buildings, the disruption to children’s education is something that should be avoided.

Whether you call it ‘invest to save’ or ‘a stitch in time saves nine’, I am with those that think almost all schools should have sprinkler systems installed. When local authorities carry the risk on their own books, this is an even more important choice as not only are there re-building costs but there may also be significant transport charges moving pupils to other schools.

The most important reasons is that pupil’s education should not be disrupted. Even though coursework is of less importance than it was previously in our examination system, loss of work can affect a child’s progress.

Sprinkler system may not be cheap, but they are a good investment. The government should review the rules over school building to make these system mandatory unless there is a good reason not to install them. They should also ask whether private schools need to be required to take measures when building new schools or extensions above a single storey in height.

 

We cannot ignore those left behind

This post was prompted by two event. Firstly, someone reading my post of the 15th June 2017 on this blog, entitled Class rules: not OK, about a report issued by the Social Mobility Commission, and secondly, by some recent data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported in the Oxford Mail. That data revealed that in the area of North Oxford I represent on the county council women can expect to live up to eleven years longer than women living in some parts of the east of the City.

Both of these facts reminded me of the issue of deprivation, and the role that education can, could and should play in helping improve the life chances of everyone in society. Over the years, since fresh thinking began to appear after the paralysis of the Second World War, and its aftermath, there have been various schemes aimed at reducing the effects of deprivation on schooling. These have included, Education Priority Areas, Schools of Exceptional Difficulty; Education Action Zones, and currently, Education Opportunity Areas. In the same time period funding for schooling has shifted from a local matter, topped up by grants from Westminster, to a national formula assisted by the Pupil Premium for some children, with different arrangements for those designed as SEND pupils.

Have any of these interventions made much difference? The interesting point about all the schemes listed in the previous paragraph was that they were determined at a national level. There was also a time during the period when the market was seen as the dominant narrative in policy-making when there were few schemes specifically aimed at the disadvantaged areas of England.

So, what would I do if I had the chance? Teachers are important. For without teachers both determined to work in these areas of deprivation and with an understanding of the children and their families that live there, no progress will be made. When there are teacher shortages, challenging schools find staffing difficult and turnover a real problem, as those that do come to work in these schools often don’t stay very long. Well-designed local training programmes crafted between schools and higher education can help, and will certainly reduce the lack of preparation some new teachers feel when joining these schools that are so unfamiliar to them. Good leadership is also very important, and I worry about the development of both middle and senior leadership for these challenging schools in the present climate. But without staff, no changes are possible.

Then, of equal importance, there is the curriculum. Yes, reading and writing are important, but so is a balanced curriculum, especially in the secondary school. We need a curriculum that increasingly involves the learner in choosing rather than being told what to learn. Of course, you cannot choose to learn to break the law, but you may want to learn a more practical set of skills than the current EBacc permits. To demotivate and even alienate from learning young people both now, and probably in the future, through an inappropriate curriculum is a as great a failure of our politicians than the current shambles over Brexit.

Finally, we need to engage the parents that the system failed. Unless we do, they won’t help break the cycle of deprivation. As an earlier post showed, the relationship between persistent absence and deprivation is stark. If education for all really is important for our future as a society, then we have to break down this cycle that is repeating itself between the generations.

All this takes cash, and with rising pupil numbers and a lack of political will to increase taxation, it is difficult to see where the resources will come from. Perhaps, through greater use of modern technology?

What’s the collective noun for a group of schools?

How many angels can you gather on the head of a pin? How many words can you inscribe on the back of a postage stamp? Along with raffle prizes about either how many sweets there are in the bottle or undergraduates in a phone box – note for younger readers, phone boxes were largely red sites for fixed landline telephones. Unlike police boxes they have yet to be immortalised in a hit TV series, but appear regularly in period dramas and old films. The K1 design is an ionic British deign classic of the 1930s.

Anyway, enough of nostalgia and factoids, the purpose of this introduction is to lead into a consideration of how many secondary schools will be located in my County Council division in North Oxford by September 2019? This week, the temporary home for Oxford’s new secondary free school, the Swan School, was announced as being on the south side of the Marston Ferry Road, just inside my division and almost next door to the excising Cherwell School. In 2020, or more likely 2021, the Swan School will move eastwards to it permanent home at the other end of the road, assuming pupil number post-Brexit require an extra school in Oxford.

However, the potential arrival of the Swan School to join the Cherwell School, both part of the River Learning Trust MAT, even on a temporary basis, set me thinking about how many schools with pupils of secondary school age were congregated in the small patch of north Oxford that I represent on the County Council? At the last count, the total for September 2019 will be eight schools, with an ninth just outside the boundary of the division.

In total, according to DfE figures and including the 120 new Swan School pupils, this will mean about 4,000 pupils are educated at schools containing secondary age pupils and located in my Division. Add in the school just outside the boundary and the total is heading towards the 4,500 figure.

Of course, since two are preparatory schools and others of the six private schools have pupils younger than eleven on roll, so the actual number of secondary age pupils is lower than the overall total for pupil numbers on roll. At least four of the schools also have boarders, so the number arriving and leaving each day is also somewhat less than the overall total. Still it does create pressure on the road system. This is despite fact that some of the private schools arrange for coaches to pick up some pupils and The Cherwell School is feted as having the largest proportion of pupils of any secondary school that cycle to school each day.

Does eight secondary schools, all located in one county division, count as some sort of record? Would it justify an entry into the record books? I would be interested to hear of anyone that has more secondary schools in one electoral division for a Councillor. Some MPs will have more such schools, but few many have such a diverse range.

Finally, there are also two state primary schools within my division, and also nurseries, childminders and other provision for the under-fives, plus a couple of Oxford Universities colleges. Perhaps it is a good thing that I have such an interest in education.

 

School transfer costs

Once you move from a placed base system for the governance of schools, to one where a market model is the preferred choice, it is probably inevitable that each year schools will move between Multi- Academy Trusts for a variety of different reasons. Today, the DfE has published a note on their statistic pages about the number of such moves and the financial implications. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/academy-transfers-and-funding-england-financial-year-2017-to-2018

In the five years between 2013-14 and 2017-18, some 628 academies moved between MATs or MACs or moved from being single entities into a multi-school trust. Even though the overall number of academies managed as national schools has been increasing year by year, the percentage of academies moving has also been increasing. In 2013-14 the percentage of academies moving between or into Trusts was 0.5% of the overall total. By 2017-18, schools moving or joining Trusts accounted for 3.3% of the overall total of academies. It would have been helpful if the term financial year had been defined in the document. It must be assumed that it refers to the DfE’s financial year and not that of academies: they are not the same, and that has caused issues with the DfE’s accounts in the past.

In the days before the academy programme it is difficult to think of any local authority school being moved to another authority’s control, although whole authorities were broken up for a variety of reasons. Northamptonshire will be the next authority to see its remaining maintained schools split between two new unitary councils, after the financial problems that beset the county council earlier this yar. The DfE might like to publish data on the costs of such restructuring alongside these costs in the academy sector, just for comparison.

2017-18 was the first year that the number of schools receiving grant funding on moving between Trusts fell; from 60 schools the previous year to 49 in 2017-18. However, the savings were proportionally not as significant, as the bill over the two years such cash payments may be spread was only £370,000 less. Hopefully, there will be a larger decline in such expenditure in 2018-19.

Over the five year period, the cost to the system has been some £22 million. The DfE note explains what has been covered by this grant funding.

As the DfE explains, an academy can change trust arrangements only on the agreement of the Regional Schools Commissioner (RSC) acting on behalf of the Secretary of State (prior to 2014 decisions were taken by the Secretary of State).  It may apply to do so voluntarily – for example, a single academy may apply because it wants to benefit from the greater capacity (eg school improvement) from being part of a multi-academy trust; or the transfer may be initiated by the RSC because of concerns about the performance of the academy or the trust responsible for it.  The latter scenario is sometimes referred to as re-brokerage and is similar to intervention in local authority maintained schools, which sees them transformed into sponsored academies. Of course, before academies the local authority either had to solve the problems with the school or opt to close or amalgamate it with another school.

The largest sum identified in 2017-18 was for an academy in Stockport, where the cost identified was in excess of half a million pounds. Think what that cash might have done if used in other ways.

 

More secondary age pupils, but fewer pre-school entrants

This is the time of year when the DfE publishes its annual look at pupil projections for the next few years. This year’s output can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/national-pupil-projections-july-2018 There isn’t a lot in the document to surprise those that follow the data about pupil numbers. Secondary school pupil numbers are on the increase, but the downturn in births in 2013 is starting to affect the primary sector and will continue to do so over the next few years.

These numbers are a key component of the Teacher Supply Model that helps determine the number of new teachers needed. Clearly, becoming a secondary school teachers might be seen as a wise career choice, since rising numbers means more teachers to be employed – even if class sizes rise further – and more promoted posts to oversee the larger schools and the new schools that will be built. A yet to be built free secondary school in Oxford has just appointed someone in their early 30s as head designate. However, entering undergraduate training to be a primary school teacher may need slightly more thought. Yes, there will be jobs in 2021, when the class of 2018 emerge with their degrees, but there will be fewer pupils to be taught regardless of what happens to Brexit.

In Oxford, it was revealed this week, we have maintained primary schools with more than 20% of pupils with non-GBR EU citizenship. Of course, some will be Irish citizens and presumably unaffected by Brexit in terms of living and their parents working in Oxford. Some 90 out of the 2,100 teachers employed by the county are from outside the UK, but that includes Commonwealth and USA citizens as well as EU citizens.

Leaving Brexit aside, the future pupil population tables only predict any shift from the private sector to the state sector or, indeed, visa versa on past and current numbers in independent schools. The tables may also have to take into account the effects of home schooling in the future, if that really were to take off in a big way, especially for certain age-groups.

Indeed, this might be why training to be a primary teachers might also offer an alternative job opportunity as a tutor to one of the family’s that look to employ such a staff member. The day of the governess is now dead, but they have been replaced by the term tutor that like the term teacher seems to have become accepted as the term for employees of any gender.  Like the term teacher, it is also a term anyone can use to describe themselves and their occupation.

Disappointingly, there is no sub-national breakdown of future pupil projections in the data published by the DfE to allow for consideration of where might be an interesting place to base a career in teaching and where promotion might be slower in the future, especially in the primary sector.

Of course, the main concern is not calculating the number of teachers needed as a result of these projections, but filling the training places each year. As I have pointed out many times, the government seem unlikely to meet that requirement again this year. Hopefully, it will persuade those that do train to work in state-funded schools.